The Wednesday before Columbus Day, Mr. Russell called to ask if I would like to go to Boston on the weekend to see Mark. I was overjoyed. He said we would drive up early Saturday morning and wouldn't have to come back until Monday night because of the holiday. He told me to just pack a few clothes, my toothbrush, and be ready at 6:00 AM.
Friday night I was so excited I couldn't sleep. Finally, I was going to see Mark!
Mr. Russell picked me up right on time on Saturday. As we began the drive, he asked, "Richard, how are you doing?"
"No, I mean really. This is a terribly hard time for us and I'm sure it must be just as hard for you."
"Well," I said slowly, "most of the time I'm pretty miserable. I worry about Mark all the time. I can't concentrate in school and that's not going very well. Of course, the other kids don't know what's going on, so they tease me and call me 'Space Shot,' which I guess is better than what my brother used to call me, but it still hurts. The counselor and the teachers try to support me, but there's only so much they can do."
"What did your brother call you?"
I smiled a little and asked, "Didn't Mark tell you? He called me 'Little Dick'."
He smiled back and said, "I suppose 'Space Shot' may be a little better, but only a little."
"What does help me a lot," I went on, "is talking on the phone with Mark. I don't know what I'd do without that."
"I'm glad it helps you. It helps him too."
"He sounds pretty good," I said. "He's always got a corny joke for me, and he never sounds down or really sick."
"Richard, you probably should know that his mother and I worried for thirteen years that his disease would return."
"Did Mark know about it or was he too young to remember?"
"He didn't remember much, but when he was about seven, he asked us about it and we told him then."
"So he knew it could return?"
"Yes." Mr. Russell looked at me sideways and was silent for a few minutes. Finally, he asked, "Richard, how much do you know about Mark's disease?"
"Well, I know it's serious, and that he could die, but I know it can go into remission and he sounds so positive that I'm sure it will." I realized after saying it that that was the first time I had acknowledged aloud the fact that Mark could die. I shuddered a little.
"I want to tell you a few things, so that you'll be prepared when you see him. The disease Mark has is called acute myeloenous leukemia, although it has other names we don't need to bother with. It is the second most common kind of pediatric leukemia. 'Acute' means that it can move fairly fast. You remember the bruises Mark came home with from your last time together?" I nodded. "Because it's a blood disease, one of its first symptoms is bruising. Pneumonia is a close second, because the disease inhibits his immune system. That will mean, by the way, that when you see him, you'll have to wash thoroughly first and wear a face mask."
I nodded. "What causes it?"
"I wish we knew. If we did, we might be closer to a real cure, but nobody really knows. Anyway, as I told you before, the standard treatment for it is chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Do you remember that?"
I nodded again.
"I don't think I told you what a bone marrow transplant is. The chemo destroys all of the bad bone marrow cells. Then healthy bone marrow from a donor, in this case his mother, is injected into his spine in the hopes that it will generate new, healthy bone marrow. If it does, he will go into remission."
"And if it doesn't?"
"I'm afraid he'll die, but we won't know for many months whether it's working or not. Do you have questions?"
"Do the doctors have any idea how effective the treatment can be?"
"The longer the first remission is, the better the odds, but I'm afraid that recovery after a recurrence is below 50%."
My heart sank and tears flooded my eyes. I tried to find positive things to say. "Does it help him that he was in really good shape before it recurred?"
"Yes. In fact that's one of the reasons we encouraged his swimming. Richard, his mother and I along with you are guardedly hopeful, but I think we need to be realistic, because false hopes can be devastating."
"I understand," I replied, "but Mark sounds so good that I guess all I can do is keep hoping and praying."
After that, we rode in silence for a long way.
Before entering Boston, Mr. Russell spoke again. "There are a few other things I need to tell you before you see Mark. First, chemotherapy takes a big toll on the patient's body. It causes the patient's hair to fall out, so Mark is presently totally bald. Second, it can make him feel very sick, and consequently very weak. Mark doesn't have much energy, I'm sure when he sees you he'll be highly excited and that will cause him to burn up what little energy he has pretty quickly. So the first time you go in, we won't stay for a long time, not over half an hour. He won't tell you he's tired, but he will be. Third, he has anemia, which means too few red blood cells. He will look very pale to you. Please don't comment on any of these things unless he does, because that won't help him. Understood?"
Arriving at the hospital we took an elevator to the third floor. Walking down the corridors I could see private rooms and multi-patient wards. It seemed as though almost all of the patients were children. When we got outside Mark's room, we both washed and put on surgical masks before we went in.
Mark was lying propped up in bed, his mother beside the bed. When he saw me, he broke into a big smile and tried to sit up but couldn't. His mother raised the bed into more of a sitting position.
"Is that really you, Richard, hiding behind that mask?"
"The one and only," I responded.
Mr. Russell was right. Except for his smile, Mark looked ghastly. In addition to his beautiful hair being gone, his eyes looked sunken and dark. His skin was paper-white as though he had no blood at all, and I was sure he had lost weight.
"Come over where I can see you better," he urged.
I went to his bed as he held out his hand. I looked to his mother for approval and, receiving it, took his cold hand in mine.
"I look pretty awful, don't I?"
What should I say? Should I agree with him?
Mr. Russell interjected, "I told Richard how you would look, Mark. Don't worry about that."
Mark looked at him a moment and then asked me, "So, what have you been doing?"
I told him again much of what I had said over the phone about school, about Joey's swimming, and about Peter and Christian, who had been so helpful and understanding. All too soon, it was time to go.
"Please come back," Mark pleaded.
"Your dad says we'll come back this afternoon. You get some rest." With that, his father and I left.
"Are you OK, Richard?"
"I'm a little shaken," I admitted. "Even though you warned me, I guess I wasn't really prepared."
"I know," his father said. "Every weekend when I come back here, I have to get used to it all over again."
"Is his mother here all the time?"
"Pretty much, except when he's having treatments."
"How does she deal with it?"
"She's a very strong woman, Richard. Still, it's hard for her."
"He's never mentioned anything like pain in our phone calls. Is he in pain?"
"Sometimes, I'm sure. He never complains, but after awhile you learn to see it in his eyes."
We went down to the hospital coffee shop and had a little lunch, even though I don't think either one of us was very hungry.
"You talked before about the treatment taking a long time. How long do you think it will be?"
"If it works, probably late spring or early summer. Then, when he comes home, he'll have care in a clinic several days a week. So far, he's been very patient. I'm not sure he realizes what a long process this is."
In the afternoon, we went back to his room and stayed a little longer. I asked him what he was reading.
"Right now, just short stuff, science fiction mostly, from the hospital library. What are you reading?"
I reminded him about The Sword in the Stone, telling him I was reading the rest of the collection, The Once and FutureKing, which was a long book. I told him that it was about King Arthur and Merlin and that I found it rather funny in places.
"Hang onto it. I want to read it one of these days," he said. Soon his eyes began to droop, and Mr. Russell said it was time to go.
Opening his eyes, Mark asked, "Can you come back tomorrow?"
"Yes," I said, and he smiled. "I wish I could hold you, or give you kiss, but I guess that wouldn't be wise. Just remember that I really love you and I'm praying for you."
"I know you are," he said. That was the second time he had said that, but again I didn't get a chance to ask him how he knew.
The Russells had rented a furnished apartment within walking distance of the hospital. Mr. Russell got my suitcase out of the car and we went in. It was a nice little place, and Mr. Russell showed me where I would sleep. The room wasn't much bigger than a closet, but it would be fine for the time I was there.
Later, as we ate a quiet dinner, Mr. Russell asked, "What are you thinking, Richard?"
"Oh, gosh, my thoughts are so confused I don't think I could tell you. I'm really worried and, yes, I was shocked to see him the first time, but I could tell that the core Mark was still there, and I guess that's what's important right now."
"Were you too shocked? Would you rather not go back tomorrow? His mother and I would completely understand."
"No, no, I want to go back, and even if you did understand, Mark wouldn't. I want to spend as much time with him as I can. I wish there was something I could do to help him, but I don't see what."
"You do help him, Richard, with your visiting and your phone calls and most of all your love, which is very evident."
I went to bed early that night, even before Mrs. Russell returned at the end of a very long, hard day, but couldn't sleep for a long time. When I did sleep, I kept having dreams, awful, scary dreams of people dying and of Mark suffering horrible torments which tore him apart.
I woke with a start about 6:00 in the morning and lay back trying to think how I could help him. He was the jokester; I was no good at jokes. Maybe I could get him a couple of joke books.
With that thought, I got up, dressed and went into the kitchen, where Mr. and Mrs. Russell were sitting, talking quietly. They stopped when they saw me, and I had the feeling I had interrupted something, but they greeted me warmly and offered me some coffee. Mark's mother told me how happy he was to see me and that he was sleeping when she left. I could see there were tears in her eyes, but she controlled them.
As we ate I asked if there was a bookstore anywhere near.
"Yes," said Mr. Russell, "there's one about three blocks from here. What are you looking for?"
"Well, Mark said that he's only reading short things right now, and he loves jokes so much I thought I'd try to find him a couple of joke books."
"What a wonderful idea," said Mrs. Russell, so after breakfast, she headed to the hospital while Mr. Russell and I walked to the bookstore. As we entered the store I realized I only had about a dollar with me.
Stopping inside the door, I said, "Mr. Russell, I think I've got a problem."
"I don't have any money. Could you lend me some? I'll be sure to pay you back."
"Don't worry about that. Just pick out what you think he'd enjoy."
I picked out two which we bought, and then we walked to the hospital. When we went in, Mark was sitting in a chair.
That's a good sign, I thought. He smiled and reached out his hand again. "Can I give him a hug?" I asked.
"Yes, a gentle one. Just remember he bruises easily," said his mother, so I gave him a long, warm hug. He smiled that smile, and I felt a little better.
"Here," I said, giving him the books. "I thought you might enjoy these."
He took them, looked them over, and laughed. "Oh, my, you do know that you're just giving me ammunition?"
"Thank you," he said more seriously. "You're always so thoughtful. That's one of the reasons I love you so much." He took my hand and kissed it. "Someday, you'll be able to take that silly mask off and we can kiss properly." I wondered how long that would be.
We talked happily for awhile before Mr. Russell suggested that we leave and let Mark rest a bit.
When we returned in the afternoon, Mark was back in bed, sleeping, so I waited quietly. His mother and father went down to the coffee shop for a few minutes so that she could have a little late lunch. I sat staring out the window. Then I looked at his joke books a bit.
"How long have you been here?" Mark asked.
I looked around. Mark was smiling at me. I told him it hadn't been long, but I had been preparing myself by reading his joke books.
"Too bad," he said. "OK, I have story for you. Little Bobby was sitting in class when his teacher asked him, 'Can you tell me the names of the three kings who have brought happiness and joy into people's lives'? 'Sure,' he answered. 'Smo-king, Drin-king, and Fuc-king'."
We laughed and I asked him where he had gotten that one.
With his sly smile and a conspiratorial wink he said, "Well, there's this really filthy-minded older boy in the next room. He can get around in a wheelchair, so he comes to visit me while Mom goes to lunch."
At that point his parents returned, so we couldn't pursue the subject further.
"Tell me something, Mark. Twice now I've said I was praying for you and you said, 'I know'. How did you know?"
"It's the strangest thing," he began. "It started right away, on my first morning here. I was lying here feeling sorry for myself and suddenly I got a message in my mind from you. You weren't really talking to me, but I could tell you were praying. The same thing happens over and over, often first thing in the morning or the last thing at night, and, of course, every Sunday morning. Are you praying at those times?"
"Yes," I replied, awestruck.
"I have no idea how it works, but it makes me feel very close to you."
We speculated some on how it did work, but we came up with no ideas except mental telepathy, and right then, we both became believers, as did his parents.
Mr. Russell was going to stay late with Mark that day, so Mrs. Russell and I walked back to their apartment together.
"Mark is so glad to see you," she said. "The last thing he asked before going to sleep last night and the first thing he asked when he woke up this morning was when you were coming."
I thought about the double entendre in that question for a minute, before saying, "I wish I didn't have to go back to the Cape."
"I'm sure he does too, but you would get very tired of this after awhile."
"Do you get tired of it?"
"Frankly, in a way I do. I never tire of being with Mark, but I must admit I get exhausted sometimes, even though I'm doing nothing but sitting."
"That's part of why I wish I could be here more often, so we could take turns."
"You're very kind, Richard, but it just can't be for right now. Do plan to come back, however, as often as you're able."
And so it happened that I went to the hospital almost every weekend.
At Christmas I gave him a copy of The Odyssey. I knew it was pretty heavy, but I thought maybe somebody could read it to him. His mother said that she loved the book and would be happy to read it aloud.
The weekend after Christmas, while his parents were out of the room, Mark asked, "Do you know what the gay kid got for Christmas?"
"No," I replied, bracing myself for the bad pun that was sure to follow.
"An erection set," he chortled.
The days and weeks passed slowly. Sometimes I would look at him and think he was looking better. Other times, I thought he looked worse. But he never failed to be cheerful when I came, and while I knew the chemo was taking its toll, I was hopeful.